The pathway of faith

When we are young, we seek instant gratification and easy answers. Once upon a time, a four-page pamphlet may have requited us. An article published on a website, clothed in pseudo-intellectual phraseology may have been particularly convincing. A naive belief in the truthfulness of friends and the deceit of foes may have suppressed those inner interrogations. And when there were no answers to our questions, we were likely to throw a wobbly, demanding a precipitous riposte from our companions.

In earlier times we could be intemperate, slamming closed those heavy doors of metaphor: stamping our feet, jumping up and down, bawling at the patient and wise. In earlier times, when interpretations did not captivate us, we might have slammed doors shut, or exited them never to return. We were like impetuous teenagers demanding undemanding resolutions to every encounter with discomfort.

Doubt was once a poison chalice; an awful burden to be lonesomely shouldered as an inner affliction, cloaked in shame. Those inner questions were never to be articulated. Dissatisfaction was never to be discussed in the open. Suspending our own intellects, we would hand our affairs over to the gatekeepers of our souls: to scholars, tradition and insistent apologetics. We would seek refuge in those we assumed to be more knowledgeable than ourselves, satisfying ourselves with their satisfaction; comforting ourselves with the certainty of others, abrogating personal responsibility to the community.

But on vast mountains in ancient times, men who became guides for multitudes ascended towards the heavens in search of meaning and truth. It was not certainty that drove the seekers up to the isolated cave, away from the tribe and their idols: it was doubt. The theses of their companions did not satisfy them: that God was present in lumps of clay and stone. The inherited hypothesis that life had no meaning despite the miracle of existence was unconvincing. Inner conversations became all-consuming, up in the cave, on a mountain.

Be driven by doubt to find the truth, say the wise. Where in earlier times we may have thrown a tantrum when explanations did not assuage us, now we patiently persevere. Our experiential faith drives us forward, even as the faith of the intellect wavers. We trust in God and remember Him often, calling on Him for guidance and light; we pray and fast and spend of what he has blessed us with on the poor and unfortunate, adhering to the simple faith of those before us. The intellect may encounter obstacles, but the heart discerns a forward path. 

Let doubt not be a forbidden force; let it be a positive engine of change, a pathway of discovery. In any of our endeavours, were we to remain static and unthinking, we would make no progress at all. Reflect on the signs on the horizons and within yourselves, says our Lord. 

In earlier times I delighted in the intellectualism of others; often I celebrated the good fortune that had allowed me to typeset the works of the learned, eulogising the truth they contained. But the single narrative is always dangerous; gaps in knowledge are easily evaded, polemic conveniently ignored. The sectarian are quick to blame the other. Vexatious details are effortlessly cast aside. Discernment transmitted through the years becomes unquestioned fact. Orthodoxy replaces the intellect.

How would it be if we did not doubt ourselves? Would we ever repent for our sins? Would we ever correct ourselves in a fit of anger, for a crime of passion or a misstep in times of hardship? In reality, we have to correct ourselves constantly: this is what our faith asks of us, for we can never be completely straight and true. Never were we asked to be as the angels: we are neither angels nor devils despised. If we were a people who did not sin and err, our Lord would have taken us away and replaced us with another which did, so that He might forgive them in our place. The best human is one who corrects himself when he makes mistakes big or small.

The intellect now supplicates for answers. It wants to carry us back to our Lord and find Him well pleased with us. Our once romantised vision of history no longer satisfies us; it is recognisably unreal. The veils that have been drawn between us and the past disturb us now. History is not black and white, but complex; to read one book and believe that we know it all is patently a delusion. We are not at peace with ourselves, because we have not understood the problems which troubled the communities of the past; when things are not properly appreciated they cause unrest.

All of us have biases; nobody is immune. In earlier times, when beliefs, ideas or actions did not sit well with us, we responded according to our disposition: turning a blind eye to some things and rejecting others. Rejoicing in our primitive mindset, we mixed honouring people with telling the truth; almost always would apotheosis trump the truth, especially when it seemed inconvenient or incendiary. Rarely did we consider criticism a positive act.

When it occurred to us that fictional accounts might have come into our tradition, we stuck our fingers in our ears. When we discerned that pure knowledge had been mixed with falsehood, or that there had been foul play in our lauded sciences, we turned heedlessly away. It was better to say, we told ourselves, that whatever we encountered was true because it was found in our books or because it was old.

Now we allow ourselves to say: it could be true, but it might not be. At last we have seen that our task is to struggle to manifest the truth: to speak the truth even if it is against ourselves. Now we ask those questions we once thought taboo, convinced that we must discern our way in the times in which we find ourselves, for our Lord orders us to be just. He does not compel a soul beyond its abilities, we remind ourselves; we will not be judged for what we do not know. The Judge of judges will measure each of us according to our station, not the station of another.

In earlier times our teachers discouraged us from pondering issues deeply, and we complied. We were afraid to seek knowledge as the scientist would; we were not to think and reflect, although this contradicted our Book. We were unwilling to embrace the hard work of the path; we did not comprehend that to hear and obey was not the same as to understand. Criticism, we used to think, meant to insult or to break something. To disagree, we thought, meant to become a renegade. We were refugees from ourselves.

Our experience of the world has changed us. Now we see that the state of the world today is a blessed opportunity for us to look back on ourselves. Perhaps we may discern that what we have today is a mere shadow of reality. When we open our Book, we find that it is concerned with social justice throughout; when we open our books, we find it nowhere to be found. All around us, the focus is on infinitesimal details, and yet somehow we manage to completely miss the big picture. When you cannot see what is special about something, you cannot benefit from it at all.

When I was young, I was too impatient to wait for answers. Every question had to have a simple explanation. It was enough to trust in the retort of the respondent, that they were truthful and learned and wise. But often their elucidation no longer satisfies and it is here that an ironic truth becomes self-evident: doubt is a gift from God.

When you are seeking the truth, doubt is your propeller. It is a mechanism which drives your forward. The conventional wisdom that demands that you ask no questions is borne of ignorance and self-satisfaction. It is no way to live your life. Instead, be like those men who celebrate the praises of their Lord, standing, sitting and lying down on their sides, who contemplate the wonders of the heavens and the earth, and say, ‘Our Lord! Not for naught have you created all this! Glory to you! Save us from the penalty of the Fire.’


One thought on “The pathway of faith

  1. Assalamu alykum,

    Doubt as a driving force. Al-Imam al-Ghazali spoke about a similar thing in his work “al-Mungid mina thalal”. Later Descartes reused the same idea. He extensively studied the works of al-Ghazali.

    However I find that there is something better for the heart than doubt. To realise and to acknowledge that you do not know something is better for the heart. It is actually knowledge. You want to walk forward but with knowledge. To come to accept that we really know very little.

    I, very much, liked this line:

    “The inherited hypothesis that life had no meaning despite the miracle of existence was unconvincing.”



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